Spencer Haywood, the spice in the Bullets' recipe, stood by his locker and pulled on a salt-and-pepper jacket, the third piece of an elegant ensemble. He looked very much at ease.

Coach Gene Shue returned Haywood to the starting lineup Saturday night for the first time since a Nov. 14 game against the 76ers at the Spectrum. Jeff Ruland, who had started the past 17 games, played a sixth-man role in the Bullets' 97-91 Christmas loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Capital Centre.

"I'm cool no matter how they play me," Haywood said.

That, of course, is a variation of the requisite thing to say, but it was clear to Shue that the new arrangement is good for Haywood, Ruland and the team.

"It doesn't matter to Jeff so much if he starts. He can get right into the game," said Shue. "Spencer plays a little better when he starts. He's not as effective if he comes off the bench cold."

Haywood, who had been out with a calf injury, appeared inspired by being given the start. With a quick nine-foot jump shot, he scored the Bullets' first points. He finished with nine points in 24 minutes, making half of his shots from the field. Almost everyone else on the team had trouble shooting.

Ruland played 31 minutes in a reserve role. He scored 18 points and had nine rebounds.

In the second half, while the rest of the team was struggling to make up for a 26-14 second period in which they made only two field goals, Ruland kept the Bullets in the game with his controlled play.

Clearly the forward position was the one highlight for the Bullets. Ruland and Haywood played well. And Greg Ballard played brilliantly.

Ballard scored 37 points on 13-of-24 shooting from the field, and nine-of-10 shooting from the free throw line. He also had nine rebounds and seven assists.

"I wasn't surprised by Ballard's performance at all. He's one of the best forwards in the league," said Atlanta Coach Kevin Loughery.

Washington's forwards also stifled the Hawks' high-scoring rookie, Dominique Wilkins, who finished with seven points, 11 below his average.

Although Eddie Johnson and Dan Roundfield both scored 27 points, the Bullets' problems were more with scoring than with defense.

At the other positions, the Bullets had a rough night, especially in the shooting department.

Center Rick Mahorn (five for 15) and guards Don Collins (one for eight) and Kevin Grevey (zero for nine) were as cold as the weather is warm, and the Bullets ended up shooting only 40 percent from the field.

"It was a tough night," said Ballard of the Bullets' poor percentages. "We were missing shots from all over the floor."

The loss to Atlanta broke a four-game winning streak at home. The Bullets, with a 14-13 record, trail division-leading Philadelphia by eight games.